Follow-up: Whatever happened to Rep. Bob Rommel’s classroom Big Brother bill?

State Rep. Bob Rommel of Naples. (Image: Tampa Bay 10 News)

March 25, 2022 by David Silverberg

Florida teachers can rest assured that they will not have to wear microphones and be subject to video surveillance in their classrooms—at least for the rest of this year.

That’s because the Video Cameras in Public School Classrooms, House Bill (HB) 1055, in the Florida legislature died at the end of the legislative session.

It was not given a hearing or considered for passage during the three-month legislative session.

The bill was introduced on Dec. 28 last year by state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples). It required that Florida public school teachers wear microphones and be watched by video cameras in their classrooms.

Following its first reading on Jan. 11, the bill was referred to two subcommittees of the Florida House Education and Employment Committee: the early learning and elementary education subcommittee and the secondary education and career development subcommittee. It was also referred to the House Appropriations preK-12 appropriations subcommittee.

In a Feb. 11 message to constituents, Rommel stated:

“On any given school day in the Sunshine State, over 2.5 million kids attend our public schools. That doesn’t even include kids in private school or homeschool.

“We have more school children than 15 other states have people. Our children must have a world-class education and we must take every precaution to keep them safe. Safe from bullying, safe from abuse, and safe from teachers with an ideological agenda.

“The key is to make our classrooms transparent and accountable. That’s why I filed legislation this year to put security cameras in every classroom in Florida.

“While the radical Left wants to take control of our kids, conservatives want to keep parents in charge. In Florida, we protect parents’ rights and we don’t have an income tax. Let’s keep it that way.”

The Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee was the lead subcommittee to consider it. When it didn’t consider the bill, HB 1055 was withdrawn from consideration on Saturday, March 12, after the official end of the legislative session and then officially declared dead on Monday, March 14.

During its short life span HB 1055 came in for blistering criticism from teachers’ unions and education experts.

“Did you ever read 1984?  Big Brother is not the way to encourage learners to grapple with difficult issues, learn critical thinking and become active informed, voting citizens of our democracy.  What you propose can only limit thinking, discussion and learning for students who will become the leaders of the future,” wrote Madelon Stewart, an education activist, in a Jan. 31 op-ed in the Fort Myers News-Press.

“You may try to justify this undemocratic law as an  attempt to root out ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ however, you are, in fact, creating what you purport to fear. You say you eschew government overreach, but common sense tells us that what you propose will do nothing positive and that, in fact, you are planning to control learning, freedom of speech and thought,” she wrote.

“I believe there are some people in the public arena who are trying to create a mistrust, not just of teachers, but of public education in general,” Michelle Dillon, president of the St. Johns Education Association told NewsJax 4 in Jacksonville when the bill was introduced. “It’s just noise, it’s a distraction from the real issues of staff shortages and the lack of meaningful pay. We need to trust our educators again.”

“It’s just a lot of energy wasted on something that is wrongheaded, destructive to a profession that’s already in low morale,” Vicki Kidwell, president of the Clay County Education Association, told the same TV station. “We [the teachers] are made out to be villains and we don’t see the energy being put into fixing the problems that we have.”

The Paradise Progressive reached out to Rommel to ask if he plans to re-file this bill next year and if he would make any changes to it. To date no answer has been received.

New district lines

Rommel has announced that he will be running for the Florida House again this year. However, he will be facing a different constituency due to new House district lines.

The existing Florida House 106th District. (Map: Florida House)

Rommel’s current 106th district stretches along the Gulf coast from Bonita Beach Road in Lee County to Naples to Everglades City and Chokaloskee.

The new Florida House 80th and 81st districts. (Map: Florida House)

However, under new district maps passed by the Florida House, the 106th District has been altered and split.

The northern new district, the 80th, runs along the coast from the Lee County-Charlotte County line in the north to Immokalee Rd. in Collier County in the south. It includes Boca Grande, Pine Island and Sanibel Island.

The new southern district, the 81st, runs along the coast from Immokalee Rd. to Marco Island and includes Naples.

This more closely conforms to Rommel’s existing district and he has already stated that he will be running there for both the Aug. 23rd primary and Nov. 8th general election.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

The Paradise Progressive will be on hiatus until April 11.

New Senate-passed redistricting map confirms Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres gerrymander—but DeSantis proposal is a wild card

The transfer of north Fort Myers (left arrow) and Lehigh Acres (right arrow) into the 17th Congressional District in the map passed by the Florida Senate. The red lines denote the existing district lines. (Map: Florida Senate/Arrows: The Paradise Progressive.)

Jan. 21, 2022 by David Silverberg

By a vote of 31 to 4 the Florida Senate yesterday, Jan. 20, passed its version of Florida’s new congressional districts.

The new map makes only slight changes to Southwest Florida’s congressional districts but it does take a chunk of Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres out of the current 19th Congressional District and puts it in the 17th Congressional District to the north.

Those districts include considerable Black and Hispanic populations and dilute any potential Democratic voting blocks in the 19th, making both the 19th and 17th districts, already heavily Republican, even more so.

The Senate completely ignored a map submitted on behalf of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), which made radical changes to Florida’s congressional districts. DeSantis has indicated that he may veto the Senate map, since he has to sign off on any congressional boundary changes.

The Florida House has yet to weigh in with a final version of its congressional map.

The Senate map

An overview of the Senate-passed congressional redistricting map. Red lines denote existing district boundaries. (Map: Florida Senate)

The map approved yesterday by the Senate (S000C8040) largely keeps existing boundaries and numbers.

This map was chosen and shepherded through the committee process by Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Lee County) who chaired the Senate’s Reapportionment Committee.

From the outset, Rodrigues said he was committed to avoiding the experience of the 2010 redistricting, which was challenged in court and took six years to litigate before final maps were approved.

The initial round of maps proposed by the Senate received a “B” grade from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, an academic, non-partisan evaluation by Princeton University. It largely kept existing districts intact, while giving Florida its new 28th district. The B meant that the map was considered “better than average for the category, but bias still exists.”

As of this writing the new maps have not yet been graded by Princeton.

The Senate map keeps Fort Myers’ River District in the 19th and makes Park Ave. the boundary line between the 19th and the 17th in the west. State Road 82 becomes the boundary between the 17th and the 19th until it reaches Rt. 75 in the east.

It also puts the 19th District portion of Lehigh Acres solidly in the 17th.

The initial draft of this map was denounced by Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai. “This is gerrymandering,” she stated in a Nov. 19 press release. “Most of the people who are no longer in FL19 are minorities, our Black and Latino neighbors. It’s well known that this district has always been a giveaway to the Republicans, but this clear targeting of our communities of color should alarm everyone.”

The DeSantis map

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed map for Southwest Florida congressional districts. Red lines denote existing districts. (Map: Florida Senate)

The DeSantis proposal (P000C0079) largely follows county lines.

Under the DeSantis proposal, all of Lee County would constitute the 19th Congressional District. Collier County would constitute the bulk of a re-numbered 26th District, along with a chunk of Broward County as far east as Hialeah, the Cuban-American stronghold that provides the center of gravity for the current 25th District. A newly re-numbered 18th District would cover an immense swath of land including all of Charlotte County. Today, much of this area is contained in the 17th District.

An overview of Gov. DeSantis’ proposed congressional district map for Florida. Red lines denote existing boundaries. (Map: Florida Senate)

Analysis: Outcomes

It remains unclear whether the Senate or DeSantis maps will prevail when it comes to congressional districts. (The Senate also redrew state Senate districts. House districts will be redrawn by the state House. These do not need the governor’s signature to take effect.)

“We have submitted an alternative proposal, which we can support, that adheres to federal and state requirements, while working to increase district compactness, minimize county splits where feasible, and protect minority voting populations,” stated Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary. “Because the governor must approve any congressional map passed by the Legislature, we wanted to provide our proposal as soon as possible and in a transparent manner.”

The controversies over the dueling maps will not center around Southwest Florida. The battles are emerging over heavily populated districts on the east coast in Democratic areas like Miami and Jacksonville. According to The Florida Phoenix, it appears “DeSantis’ proposed congressional map favors Republicans in 18 districts and Democrats in 10. Under the existing map, Republicans control 16 seats to the Democrats’ 11” whereas the “Senate draft contains 16 districts that went for Donald Trump two years ago and 12 likely to skew Democratic — a gain of one seat.”

Under the Senate map, existing representatives would remain largely in place, with Rep. Byron Donalds (R) representing the 19th, in which he does not reside, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) representing the 25th, and Rep. Greg Steube (R) representing the 17th.

Under DeSantis’ map, Donalds would have to choose whether to run in a 19th District that’s even further from his home—meaning a dual commute to Lee County as well as Washington, DC—or stay where he lives in the 25th and face off against fellow Republican Diaz-Balart.

If Donalds decided not to run in the DeSantis 19th, it could open the door to a new contender of any party.

For his part, if Diaz-Balart decided to run in the DeSantis 26th District, he would suddenly have a population center to contend with in a relatively urbanized western part of his district. Until now, the western part of the 25th was barely populated and Diaz-Balart could concentrate his attentions on Hialeah and his Cuban-American constituents with the occasional trip out to Immokalee serving as a show of some degree of concern for western constituents.

Though the redistricting process is far from over, the Senate map has the greatest likelihood of passage, although DeSantis’ wild card could still change the outcome of the game.

Maps must be finalized by June 17 when candidates qualify to run in the new districts. They’re more likely to be finalized by March 11, the last scheduled day of the legislative session.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

The Donalds Dossier: On MLK Day it’s time for Byron Donalds to support democracy

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jan. 17, 2022

“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by human beings for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison people because they are different from others,” said Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During his lifetime King worked tirelessly to expand the voting franchise and get people to exercise it. He called voting “the foundation stone of political action.”

But while today people commemorate King’s legacy and remember his contributions to the country, it’s also appropriate to acknowledge the irony of one of the major opponents of voting rights in Southwest Florida—Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.).

Donalds doesn’t even believe that the United States is a democracy. On January 6, the first anniversary of the insurrection at the US Capitol, Donalds tweeted: “We aren’t a Democracy. We are a Constitutional Republic.”

As though to ensure that voting rights don’t expand, during his time in Congress Donalds has consistently voted against measures to protect the franchise and ballot access.

In this Congress, Donalds voted against the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (House Resolution (HR) 4), and the For the People Act of 2021 (HR 1), both of which are aimed at protecting people’s voting rights (and both of which passed the House).

“Abolishing voter ID laws, ending signature verification, and putting into place taxpayer-funded campaigns is detrimental to every American’s right to a free and fair election and the harmful rhetoric of President Biden cannot evade this fact,” Donalds argued in a statement at the time.

He defended the filibuster in the Senate even though the filibuster is a practice unique to that chamber and has nothing to do with the House of Representatives—and the threat of a filibuster is now being used to stop HR 1 in the Senate.

Rep. Byron Donalds campaigning in Georgia. (Photo: Office of Rep. Byron Donalds)

What is more, his defense of the filibuster came in the context of his defense of Georgia’s voter suppression law. When President Joe Biden denounced that law as “Jim Crow in the 21st Century” and “an atrocity,” Donalds argued that Biden was “irresponsibly injecting race and the travesty of Jim Crow to oppose the filibuster. Time after time, Democrats resort to the race card to shield them from having to answer for their hypocrisy and radical policies.”

He defended the Georgia law even further in a May 22, 2021 interview with The New York Times: “I think Georgia actually has a very good law. And frankly, it’s sad and, in my view, disgusting that the president referred to it as Jim Crow. It cheapens the history in our country with respect to actual Jim Crow, a disgusting relic of our past. And to try to equate that to what Georgia did, to me, is just completely illogical. It reeks of just the nastiest politics that you could ever want to bring up, to try to divide Americans and divide Georgians.”

He was also a vocal defender of Florida’s voter restriction law, arguing that, like Georgia’s law, “What it does is it actually makes our process cleaner” by reducing the number of drop-boxes and “ballot harvesting,” a practice of collecting mail-in ballots on behalf of other people, a practice outlawed in Florida prior to passage of the bill.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022, Donalds tweeted: “Today, we don’t only celebrate the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we honor his life of sacrifice and dedication that led to America becoming a more perfect union. We are the nation we are today because of men like MLK, and we must keep his dream alive.”

Donalds can start honoring that dream by working to protect and expand voting, “the foundation stone of political action” and stop denouncing, suppressing and trying to restrict it.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

Naples Rep. Bob Rommel pushes Big Brother in Florida classrooms–Updated

Bill would put teachers under video surveillance

State Rep. Bob Rommel of Naples. (Image: Tampa Bay 10 News)

Jan. 14, 2022 by David Silverberg

A bill to place video cameras in Florida classrooms to put teachers under full-time surveillance, introduced by state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples), had its initial reading on Tuesday, Jan. 11, the first day of the Florida legislative session.

House Bill (HB) 1055, Video Cameras in Public School Classrooms, “Authorizes school districts to adopt policy to place video cameras in public school classrooms; provides requirements for such policy; provides for viewing video recordings; provides DOE [Department of Education], school district, school, & certain employee responsibilities.” (A link to the full text of the bill is at the conclusion of this article.)

If passed in this legislative session the bill would take effect on July 1.

The bill has been referred to the Education and Employment Committee and its early learning and elementary education and secondary education and career development subcommittees, and the House Appropriations PreK-12 subcommittee.

Under the bill’s provisions a teacher would have to wear a microphone while teaching. Cameras would be installed in the front of classrooms. If a recording is interrupted in any way a written explanation must be filed. School principals would be the officials responsible for holding and administering the recordings and the bill specifies the circumstances under which recordings can be shared or deleted.

Rommel, who represents a legislative district running along coastal Collier County from Bonita Beach Road to Naples to Everglades City and Chokaloskee, was quoted in a television news interview saying, “Children are our most precious assets in the state of Florida and we should make sure we do everything we can to protect them and teachers too. There are incidents, a teacher/student incident, and we want to make sure we protect everyone in the classroom.”

He pointed out that “It’s not live-streamed. So, the teacher’s privacy and how they teach their class is not going to be infringed on.”

(Editor’s note: The Paradise Progressive reached out to Rommel’s office requesting a telephone interview on this subject. As of this writing the request has neither been answered nor acknowledged.)

HB 1055 immediately raised questions from the Florida Education Association (FEA), the largest teachers’ union in the state.

In a statement, Andrew Spar, FEA president, stated: “We have questions about this bill regarding parental rights and other issues. Could law enforcement or the district use the video to investigate a situation dealing with a student without parental knowledge? Can the video be used by law enforcement if a student harms another student or a school employee? Can a teacher use the recording to show that they did not get assistance in a timely manner after calling the office? Can it be used as evidence to show how effective a teacher is in the classroom?”

There is also nothing in the bill discussing the cost of the surveillance or funding for implementation.

A variety of interested parties are already lining up to lobby on the bill including the Lake County School Board, Hillsborough County Schools, and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, although none had issued public statements on their positions as of this writing.

Yesterday, Jan. 13, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, weighed in on Twitter, stating: “omg no. Florida will not be a surveillance state!!!”

Commentary: Big Brother in the classroom

As though teachers are not under sufficient pressure now, between COVID, mask mandates, remote learning, school shootings, physical threats, anti-public education sentiment, charter school competition, and underfunding as well as low pay, low benefits and general lack of respect, under HB 1055 they would now be subject to constant surveillance in their classrooms.

“Morale is not high in education with teachers and this is just going to look to teachers as another way to catch them,” Angie Snow, an elementary educator in Hillsborough County, said in an interview broadcast on Tampa Bay 10 News. “An allegation is all it takes for a parent to get access and then there’s critiquing and criticizing of everything else.”

Indeed, the presumption behind HB 1055 appears to be that teachers are guilty of something and only the right video footage is needed to catch them.

With that in mind, HB 1055 has been carefully crafted to avoid appearing as part of the ideological assault on educators and school boards.

Although Rommel has espoused conservative, highly ideological views in all his campaigns and previous representation in Tallahassee, he’s couching this bill over concern about “incidents” in classrooms. These are defined in the bill as “an event, a circumstance, an act, or an omission that results in the abuse or neglect of a student” by another student or school employee. There have indeed been incidents of violence and altercations and even shootings in schools like Parkland.

But unlike police body cameras that routinely record footage of potentially violent, dangerous and evidentiary events, classrooms are—or should be—peaceful places. For the most part, what goes on in the vast majority of Florida classrooms the vast majority of the time is teaching and learning.

The extremely rare physical threat or altercation simply doesn’t justify the expense, the difficulty, and the complications—not to mention the simple indignity—of putting microphones on every teacher and installing video cameras in every classroom. If there’s an instance of violence and a security officer has to be called, his or her body camera should provide a sufficient record of any incident.

The real purpose of this legislation is to surveil teachers to punish them—or dangle the threat of punishment—for any heretical ideas they might impart in the classroom, with any party at all playing the role of accuser, inquisitor—and potentially, plaintiff.

HB 1055 fits in nicely with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed Anti-WOKE [Wrongs to our Kids and Employees] Act, giving anyone the ability to sue teachers for teaching critical race theory. Citing video evidence, no matter how far-fetched or flimsy, plaintiffs can head to court on any pretext to financially destroy underpaid teachers even if the plaintiff doesn’t win the case.

From a practical standpoint, there’s simply no need, on a daily, ongoing basis, to record every moment in every classroom—not to mention the Orwellian implications of constant monitoring.

While Rommel is at pains to note that camera footage would not be live-streamed and would have to be released by principals, the fact is that this bill is clearly driven by extreme opponents of classroom COVID precautions and content of which they disapprove—i.e., “wokeness” and critical race theory.

Indeed, in Naples, Rommel’s home district, the only praise for the bill has come from Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III, the farmer and grocer who in August on Facebook called for the “take down” of teachers’ unions by “force.” (Oakes subsequently stated in an interview with The Paradise Progressive that he meant only by legal means.)

“If these teachers have nothing to hide they shouldn’t mind!” he stated on Facebook on Jan. 1.

This is a bad idea and a bad bill that should not get past the subcommittee stage.

*  *  *

To register an opinion on HB 1055, contact the following legislators (e-mails can be sent through their linked pages):

Education Committee

Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee

Secondary Education and Career Development Subcommittee

PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee

The full text of HB 1055 can be read here.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!



Full-fledged Florumpia: Gov. Ron DeSantis’ real State of the State address

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the state legislature yesterday. (Image: C-SPAN)

Jan. 11, 2022, before the state legislature.

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, members of the Legislature and fellow citizens:

Welcome to Florumpia, a state of unreason, unreality and unrealism!

While so many around the country have followed science, sense and sentience, Florumpia is proud to be enlightenment’s graveyard.

In Florumpia we’re determined to prevent safeguards to people’s health and safety, to encourage and spread COVID to the greatest degree possible, to endanger our kids in schools and on the streets and as much as possible prevent free thought and inquiry in classrooms.

Florumpia seeks to become the proud dumping ground for ignorance, infection, and delusion, from a losing president who refuses to admit his defeat to anti-vaxxers who want to return to a time before understanding of germs.

Florumpia is a knowledge-free state. We reject all pandemic precautions. We reject all rules, from complying with state constitutional amendments to signaling lane changes.

Florumpia stands as a rock in a stone age! And with our stone tools we will build the future.

Thanks to an authoritarian, unconstitutional federal government, our treasury is full of money approved by Democrats in Congress and the evil President Joe Biden, from the Paycheck Protection Plan, to the COVID relief plan, to support for state governments to infrastructure improvements. With this money so recklessly poured into our state coffers, I will create a special office to invalidate election results I don’t like and a Florumpian military force answerable only to me.

In our classrooms we will stamp out any free or independent thought or critical thinking by our teachers, who will be under constant surveillance and subject to lawsuits by any aggrieved party whatsoever. We will purge all curricula of unpleasantness or discomfort. In Florumpia there have never been any wars with Native Americans nor slavery nor discrimination nor lynchings and no teacher will dare teach otherwise.

We will bring our universities to heel and prevent our professors from thinking any thoughts unapproved by me. They will labor as they should, like mute and mechanical field hands.

Speaking of field hands, we will be closing our borders to all but approved Florumpians, who will pick our crops and repair our roofs and mow our lawns and serve our food in restaurants. If that drives prices beyond what Florumpians want to pay or creates a labor shortage that closes down businesses and hurts the economy we will blame it on Joe Biden.

We will crush dissent expressed in peaceful demonstrations. In our streets, Florumpians can run over any demonstrator if the demonstrator is supporting the wrong cause. Those kinds of drivers will get a pass; all others will be jailed and held guilty until proven innocent.

When it comes to law enforcement we stand with sheriffs like Polk County’s  Grady Judd who put it so well: “We only want to share one thing as you move in, hundreds a day. Welcome to Florida, but don’t register to vote and vote the stupid way you did up north, or you’ll get what they got.” We will prevent any kind of what we consider stupid voting. Efforts by stupid individuals to get stupid voters to vote stupidly will be crushed. Only our kind of stupidity will prevail!

Our elections will be carefully monitored and audited to yield only results I like—including my re-election. We will gerrymander districts to ensure only Republican outcomes and prevent anything other than a Republican majority in any election, ever. We will make Florumpia the one-party state it should be.

We will prevent any forms of fact-checking, truth-telling or lie-preventing by social media platforms and actively promote falsehoods ranging from altered COVID statistics to The Big Lie of the 2020 election.

We will encourage the massive accumulation of guns by all right-thinking Florumpians and ensure that Florumpia is a fully armed society unbound by any limits on weaponry—and certainly not restrained by a well-regulated militia.

But while we endanger the lives of already-born Florumpians with guns and germs we will prevent women from having the right to choose their own health options. We will make Florumpia the leading unsafe abortion capital of the world, allowing me to surpass that charlatan, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, as the king of the back alley abortion promoters.

We memorialize the Surfside building collapse and applaud the first responders who answered the call but we will protect campaign-contributing builders and developers by reducing their liability for future catastrophes.

Speaking of Surfside, that sad incident brings me to a final, indisputable and absolutely true observation: “…You never know what tomorrow will bring. Don’t take anything for granted and make the most out of each and every day.”

And I say: Amen to that!

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

2022, Florida and the future: Anticipating the political year ahead

A vision of Florida’s future? The dome homes of Cape Romano off the coast of Southwest Florida. When built in 1979 they were on solid land. (Photo: Andy Morfrew/Wikimedia Commons)

Jan. 3, 2022 by David Silverberg

At the end of every year, most newspapers and media outlets like to do retrospectives on the year past. They’re easy to do, especially with a skeleton crew: just go into the archives, pull out a bunch of the past year’s photographs or stories, slap them together, throw them at the readers or viewers and then staff can relax and party for the New Year. Or better yet, when it comes to a supposedly “daily” newspaper, don’t print any editions at all.

What’s much harder to do is look ahead at the year to come and try to determine, however imperfectly, what the big stories will be.

That takes some thought and effort but it’s much more valuable and helpful in setting a course through the fog of the future.

Although there will be surprises and any projection is necessarily speculative, there are a number of big issues in the nation and Southwest Florida that are likely to dominate 2022.

Democracy vs. autocracy

Donald Trump may no longer be president but the impact of his tenure lives on. Just how much will he and his cultists continue to influence events this year?

Although the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and coup failed, the effort to impose autocratic, anti-democratic rule continues at the state and local levels as Trumpist politicians push to create mechanisms to invalidate election results they don’t like.

Nowhere is this truer than in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is playing to the most extreme elements of his base as he tries to ensure his own re-election and mount a presidential bid in 2024. He also has to outdo his other potential presidential hopefuls, most notably Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

In Florida, the race is on to produce the most extreme, radical right measures both by DeSantis and members of Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature.

Examples of this include DeSantis’ 2022 $5.7 million budget proposal for an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State to investigate election crimes and allegations. In another time and in other hands, this might seem like a politically neutral and straightforward law enforcement agency, if a redundant and unnecessary one. However, given the past year’s efforts in Florida to narrow voting options and the continuing influence of Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, it could have more sinister purposes, like invalidating or discarding legitimate election results.

DeSantis is also proposing creation of a Florida State Guard, which would be wholly subject to his will and authority. The Florida National Guard, by contrast, can be called up for national duty and is answerable to the US Department of Defense in addition to the governor.

These efforts, combined with DeSantis’ past assaults on local autonomy and decisionmaking and his anti-protest legislation, are moving Florida toward a virtual autocracy separate and unequal from the rest of the United States.

The question for 2022 is: will they advance and succeed? Or can both legislative and grassroots opposition and resistance preserve democratic government?

The state of the pandemic

The world will still be in a state of pandemic in 2022, although vaccines to prevent COVID and therapeutics to treat it are coming on line and are likely to keep being introduced. However, given COVID’s ability to mutate, new variants are also likely to keep emerging, so the pandemic is unlikely to be at an official end.

Globally, vaccines will be making their way to the poorer and more remote populations on earth.

In Florida and especially in Southwest Florida, vaccination rates are high. However, there’s no reason to believe that anti-vaccine sentiment and COVID-precaution resistance will slacken. Further, as President Joe Biden attempts to defeat the pandemic by mandating and encouraging vaccines, Republican states are trying to thwart mandates in court. At the grassroots, as rational arguments fail, anti-vaxxers are resisting COVID precautions in increasingly emotional and extreme ways, potentially including violence.

In Southwest Florida the political balance may change in favor of science as anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers sicken and die off. This will reduce their numbers and their political influence. As their influence wanes that of pro-science realists should rise—but it’s not necessarily clear that realistic, pro-science sentiment will automatically translate into equal and opposite political power.

This year will reveal whether the DeSantis COVID gamble pays off. He has bet that resisting and impeding COVID precautions in favor of unrestrained economic growth will result in political success at the polls.

Will Floridians forget or overlook the cost in lives and health at election time? It’s a result that will only be revealed in November.

Choice and anti-choice

Abortion will be a gigantic issue in 2022. Anti-choicers are hoping that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and abortion will be outlawed.

A Supreme Court ruling on a Mississippi law outlawing abortion is expected in June. There may be a ruling on Texas’ ban on abortions before then. If Roe is overturned, a number of Republican state legislatures are poised to enact their own bans based on the Texas model and Florida is one of these.

If House Bill 167 passes the Florida legislature, it will inaugurate an environment of civil vigilantism as individual citizens sue anyone suspected of aiding or performing abortions. It’s hard to imagine anything more polarizing, more divisive or more destructive both at the state level and grassroots, as neighbor turns on neighbor.

By the same token, the threat to safe abortion access may galvanize political activism by pro-choice supporters regardless of political party. That was the situation in Georgia in 2020 when a fetal heartbeat bill was passed and signed into law, only to be thrown out in court. Politically, the issue helped turn the state blue.

This year, if Roe is struck down, millions of women may turn against an anti-choice Republican Party and mobilize to enact reproductive rights legislation.

What will be the reaction if Florida follows Texas’ lead and enacts an abortion ban?

Whichever way it goes, abortion will be a sleeping but volcanic issue this year. It will erupt when court decisions are announced. It has the potential to completely reshape the political landscape.

Elections and redistricting

All other issues and debates will play out against the backdrop of a midterm election. Nationally, voters will be selecting 36 governors, 34 senators and the entire House of Representatives.

The national story will center on whether Democrats can keep the House of Representatives and their razor-thin majority in the Senate. In the past, the opposition party has usually made gains in the first midterm after a presidential election. That is widely expected to happen again this year.

In Florida, DeSantis is up for re-election as is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), all state senators, all state representatives and county and municipal officials.

DeSantis is a base politician, in every sense of the word “base.” He doesn’t try to appeal to all Floridians but has clearly decided that his victory will be won by pandering to his most extreme and ignorant supporters—including Donald Trump. His actions reveal that he is calculating that this will give him sufficient support to keep him in office and provide a platform for the presidency in 2024.

Trump, however, is a jealous god and has lately been denigrating his protégé, whom he apparently sees as a potential threat for 2024 and getting too big for his britches. DeSantis may face a Trump-incited primary on the right from Roger Stone, the previously convicted and pardoned political trickster and activist, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

If the Stone primary challenge does indeed materialize, it will make for one of the great political stories of 2022.

The primary action on the Democratic side will be between the three candidates for the Party’s gubernatorial nomination: Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.), a former governor; Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide Democratic officeholder; and state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-40-Miami.). This battle will be resolved on primary election day, Aug. 23.

On the Senate side Rep. Val Demings (D-10-Fla.), is currently the leading contender to take on Rubio, although Allen Ellison, who previously ran in the 17th Congressional District, is also seeking the Party’s nomination.

In Southwest Florida Democrat Cindy Banyai is pursuing a rematch with Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.). Currently, no other Democrat is contesting her candidacy.

The congressional and state elections will be occurring in newly-redrawn districts and the exact boundaries of all districts, congressional, state and local, will be a major factor in determining the political orientation of the state for the next decade. The Republican-dominated legislature, which begins meeting on Jan. 11, must finalize the state’s maps by June 13, when candidates qualify for the new districts.

If the maps are overly gerrymandered they will be subject to court challenges. In 2010 court challenges were so numerous and complex that maps weren’t finalized for six years. This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Fort Myers), who heads the Senate redistricting committee, has publicly stated that he wants to avoid a repeat of that experience by drawing fair maps at the outset.

Whether the final maps approved by the legislature are in fact fairly drawn and meet the terms of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment, will be a major question in 2022.

Battle over schools

School boards were once sleepy and relatively obscure institutions of government and education was a quiet area of governance.

That all changed over the past two years. With schools attempting to keep students, teachers and employees safe with mask and vaccine mandates despite vocal opposition from COVID-denying parents as well as right-wing hysteria over the teaching of critical race theory, school board elections have become pointed ideological battlegrounds. Frustrated Trumpers are determined to impose ideological restrictions on teaching and curriculum and use school boards as grassroots stepping stones to achieving power.

In Virginia the 2021 gubernatorial race turned on the question of parental control of curriculum, resulting in a Republican victory. Across the country Republicans will be trying to duplicate that success by making education a major focus of their campaigns. The resulting battle is already fierce and poised to become fiercer. It has erupted at the grassroots as school board members have been physically threatened and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s mobilization of law enforcement assets to protect school board members was denounced by right wing politicians and pundits as threatening parents.

This is prominently playing out in Florida. DeSantis has proposed the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees [WOKE] Act to prohibit critical race theory teaching and allow parents to sue school board members and teachers. Locally, state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples) has proposed putting cameras in all classrooms to monitor teachers. Local grocer, farmer and conservative extremist Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes, has demanded that teachers’ unions be “taken down” by “force.”

The school board elections of 2022 will not be what were once considered normal, non-partisan contests. They will be extreme, passionate, heavily politicized, bare-knuckled ideological battles. The outcome of these elections will determine whether students, teachers and school employees are kept safe from the pandemic, whether teachers are able to teach free of surveillance and liability, and whether the lessons imparted to students encourage open inquiry and critical thinking or narrow, ideologically-driven indoctrination.

Climate change—natural and political

The past year was one that saw some of the most extreme weather on record, clearly driven by a changing climate. Biden’s infrastructure plan had some measures to address these changes and build resilience in the face of what is sure to be climatic changes ahead. However, a major initiative to halt climate change is stalled along with the rest of his Build Back Better plan.

Climate change is the issue that undergirds—and overhangs—every other human endeavor. That was true in 2021, it will be true in 2022 and it will be true for the rest of the life of the human race and the planet.

Florida was extraordinarily lucky last year, avoiding the worst of the storms, wildfires, droughts and heat waves that plagued the rest of the United States.

Locally, Southwest Florida got a taste of climate change-driven weather when an EF-1 tornado touched down in Cape Coral on Dec. 21, damaging homes and businesses.

Nonetheless, on Dec. 7 at a Pinellas County event, DeSantis accused climate activists of trying to “smuggle in their ideology.”

“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We’re not doing any left-wing stuff,” DeSantis said to audience cheers.

“Be very careful of people trying to smuggle in their ideology. They say they support our coastline, or they say they support, you know, some, you know, difference, our water, environment. And maybe they do, but they’re also trying to do a lot of other things,” he said.

This does not bode well for the governor or legislature addressing climate change impacts this year. Still, even the most extreme climate change-deniers are having a hard time dismissing it entirely.

Reducing or resisting the effects of climate change will be the big sleeper issue of 2022, providing a backdrop to all other political issues as the year proceeds. If there is a major, catastrophic event like a very destructive hurricane—or multiple hurricanes—DeSantis and his minions may have to acknowledge that the urgency of climate change transcends petty party politics.

Beyond the realm of prediction

It is 311 days from New Year’s Day to Election Day this year. A lot can happen that can’t be anticipated or predicted.

In past years a midterm election might seem to be a routine, relatively sleepy event of low voter turnout and intense interest only to wonks, nerds and politicos.

But the stakes are now very high and the dangers considerable. As long as Trumpism continues to threaten democracy and the future of the United States, nothing is routine any more.

The world, America, Florida and Florida’s southwest region are facing unprecedented perils. But as long as America is still an election-driven democracy, every individual has a say in how those perils are addressed.

That precious vote is a citizen’s right and obligation—and it can no longer be taken for granted.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Planned Parenthood prepared for challenging year ahead

Improved patient navigation, offshore options being considered

Stephanie Fraim speaks to a gathering of Planned Parenthood supporters on Dec. 7. (Photo: Author)

Dec. 29, 2021 by David Silverberg

With major challenges to women’s health choices looming in the new year, Planned Parenthood of Florida is already preparing to adapt to a changed political and legal landscape, according to Stephanie Fraim, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

The changes include renewed and vigorous lobbying of relevant legislators and preparations to serve women’s health needs throughout the region.

Fraim spoke at a “Voices for Planned Parenthood—Let’s Get Loud!” gathering in Bonita Springs on Dec. 7. (Full disclosure: the author was a speaker on a panel at the event.)

Stephanie Fraim (Photo: Author)

“As you know Florida is poised to put in place whatever restrictions the Supreme Court puts in place whether that is a six-week Texas ban or the 15-week ban we heard arguments on last Wednesday or an overturning of Roe,” said Fraim.

“…Make no mistake, [anti-choice advocates] are clearly looking to the legislature to restrict access to abortion care and this legislature and this governor have our rights clearly in their sights,” she told the audience. “Of course we will fight every [anti-choice] law that Florida tries to implement.”

Fraim said Planned Parenthood would be fighting attempts to restrict choice on two fronts. The first was legislative and legal.

“As I said, we’re going to challenge the law that impacts our care but the real battle is going to happen at the ballot box. Right? We need people in our state house and Capitol that actually care about women and people’s health care.”

Fraim urged her listeners to get involved politically, support the Planned Parenthood Action Fund political action committee and in particular to express support for state Rep. Ben Diamond (D-68-St. Petersburg) and Sen. Lori Berman (D-31-Palm Beach County) who on Nov. 23 sponsored the Reproductive Health Care Protection Act (House Bill 709 and Senate Bill 1036) to protect women’s health care.

“On the second front, caring for our patients, getting them care and getting them to care, we will continue as Planned Parenthood to provide every bit of reproductive health care we’ve always provided and provide abortion care up to whatever the law allows, whether that’s six weeks or 15 weeks,” she said. “And, we are at the beginning stages of building one of the largest patient navigation systems in the state, connecting it to one of the largest patient navigation systems in the country.”

Planned Parenthood is putting together teams to help patients get to the health care services they need, she explained. As an example, Planned Parenthood clinics in Oklahoma saw a 500 percent increase in patients when Texas passed its restrictive anti-choice law. Florida’s Planned Parenthood is seeing an increase in Texas patients as well.

“If we lose the right here [in Florida], we will turn that and begin moving patients out of the state to where they need to go,” she said.

As an additional option, “we are thinking about a boat off the east coast of Florida. We seriously are.” A boat could legally provide women’s health services in international waters. Fraim said she had been contacted by a pilot with a float plane who could ferry patients to any vessel.

“I know, it’s horrifying,” she acknowledged. “But this really isn’t a ban on abortion, it’s a ban on safe abortion.”

A Supreme Court decision on Mississippi’s abortion ban is expected in June of next year. A challenge to Texas’ ban on abortions is ongoing, although on Dec. 10 the Supreme Court allowed it to remain in force.

In the meantime Planned Parenthood is actively seeking financial support. Until Dec. 31 all donations up to $500,000 will be doubled, thanks to a matching grant provided by an anonymous donor.

Liberty lives in light

(c) 2021 by David Silverberg

Publix heiress passes, was active conservative funder in Georgia

Carol Jenkins Barnett in an undated photo. (Photo: Publix)

Dec. 10, 2021 by David Silverberg

Publix heiress Carol Jenkins Barnett, an active funder of conservative political causes, especially in Georgia, passed away on Tuesday, Dec. 7, at the age of 65.

“It is with great sadness that Publix Super Markets shares the passing of Carol Jenkins Barnett, former chair and president of Publix Super Markets Charities,” the company stated in a press release issued the next day. “In 2016, she was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.”

Barnett was deeply involved in the 2020 Georgia campaigns of Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue for the US Senate. The Carol Jenkins Barnett Family Trust gave $100,000 to a super political action committee (PAC) called the Keep America America Action Fund. The super PAC could spend unlimited amounts of money on issues rather than candidates and it pushed hard for a Republican victory in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections.

Both Loeffler and Perdue lost their races in Georgia. Perdue is now running as a Trumpist candidate in the Georgia Republican gubernatorial primary against current Gov. Brian Kemp.

Barnett also contributed $100,000 in her own name to the Georgia Senate Battleground Fund, $10,000 to Purdue Victory Inc., $2,800 to the Purdue for Senate campaign and the same amount to the National Republican Senate Committee, headed by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).

In North Carolina she contributed $2,800 to the re-election campaign of Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), who succeeded in keeping his seat.

Barnett was a daughter of the chain’s founder, George Jenkins. According to the press release she was born and raised in Lakeland, Fla., the company’s headquarters. She began working in the Publix chain in 1972 as a cashier at the Grove Park Shopping Center in Lakeland and later worked in Publix’s corporate marketing research and development department. In 1983, she was elected to the Publix board of directors where she served for 33 years. Her net worth was $2.1 billion, according to a 2020 Forbes magazine estimate.

She was active in philanthropic and charitable work, contributing to organizations such as United Way, Florida Partnership for School Readiness, and Family Fundamentals. She became president and chair of Publix Super Markets Charities, an outgrowth of a charitable foundation launched by George Jenkins in 1966.

Also politically active among the Jenkins family members is Julie Jenkins Fancelli. According to a Nov. 18, 2021 Pro-Publica article, “Texts Show Kimberly Guilfoyle Bragged About Raising Millions for Rally That Fueled Capitol Riot,” Fancelli contributed $3 million to the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Fancelli was also active in the Loeffler and Perdue races.

To read more about Publix political activities, see “Publix: Where politics bring no pleasure.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Virginia, Florida and the road ahead for 2022

Nov. 4, 2021 by David Silverberg

When it comes to elections, winners tend to generalize while losers tend to specify.

That’s what’s happening as a result of the Virginia election where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe by 51 to 48 percent.

But does what happened in the Commonwealth of Virginia necessarily translate into a precursor for the State of Florida?

Republicans, nationally and locally, are generalizing the vote as a referendum on President Joe Biden and portraying it as a harbinger of the 2022 election.

“…I do think this wave is building. I think it was strong last night. But I think it’s going to keep building all the way into 2022,” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in an interview on the program Fox & Friends yesterday.

“I think people are rebelling against what the Democratic Party stands for nowadays,” he said. “The never-ending mandates and restrictions because of COVID, using our school systems for leftist indoctrination rather than high-quality education, and then the Biden regime’s failures from Afghanistan to the southern border, gas prices, inflation, supply chain.”

Local Republican Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who initially tweeted a mocking message to the Democratic National Committee that he subsequently deleted, later settled on a blander pronouncement: “Virginians sent a clear message to Democrats: Parents belong in the classroom, stop teaching division, enough with the radical spending, & no more mandates!”

There’s no sugarcoating this defeat for Democrats nationally: It was a big, unexpected blow and it hurt.

As the Republicans generalized its implications, so Democrats tried to focus on the specific reasons McAuliffe lost.

During a candidate debate in which Youngkin questioned McAuliffe’s veto of legislation banning “sexually explicit” content in school curriculum (Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved) “out of McAuliffe’s mouth tumbled these words: ‘I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they can teach.’

“And that’s what done it,” writes Michael Tomasky in The New Republic. “A day later, those words became an attack ad, and McAuliffe was forced to play defense from that moment on.”

DeSantis on a roll

As DeSantis pointed out, the Youngkin victory is a good omen for him.

DeSantis is undeniably in a strong position as he conducts his primary race for gubernatorial re-election and his—at this point—secondary race for president in 2024.

So strong is DeSantis’ position, given his $60 million war chest and subservient legislature that the news platform Politico Florida headlined an October 31 article: “Florida Democrats anxious as DeSantis seems unbeatable.”  

That Democrats are anxious is indisputable; that DeSantis is “unbeatable” is overstating the case.

In fact, Democrats do have some resources and determination, as the article pointed out.

“The election’s not happening tomorrow, there is still time for the tide to turn,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-47-Orlando) told Gary Fineout, the article’s author. “But obviously it needs to be an all-hands-on-deck situation right now.”

Manny Diaz, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, took issue with the article’s premise. “We’re in Florida. We lost the last governor’s race by 30,000 votes against the same character,” he said. “In politics, a year is an eternity. There’s nothing that leads me to believe DeSantis is unbeatable.” He also noted that it’s “unbelievable we’re having a conversation a year out” about a DeSantis victory.

Against DeSantis’ advantages are his liabilities: strenuous, determined efforts to block all forms of COVID protections; attacks on local school boards that have tried to protect schoolchildren, and the resulting COVID death toll in Florida—currently at 59,670, according to The New York Times, despite all the governor’s attempts to conceal or obscure state statistics.

Also, it’s being widely noted that a key to Youngkin’s success was his keeping Donald Trump at arm’s length, something noted in another Lincoln Project video, “Ungrateful.”

Another observer who emphasized Youngkin’s distance from Trump was Rep. Liz Cheney (R-at large-Wy.), who tweeted: “Congratulations to @GlennYoungkin for a great victory last night. Winning back suburban moms and independent voters, he demonstrated Republican values and competence, not conspiracy theories and lies, win elections.”

Ironically, DeSantis’ slavish Trumpism may prove a disadvantage next year. His difficulty may come from—of all people—his idol and mentor, Donald Trump. Trump is a jealous god and DeSantis’ popularity among the Republican faithful is already bringing down the divine wrath. He seems to feel a need to cut him down in his youth before he can really mount a challenge to Trump’s own nomination bid.

The anti-Trump Lincoln Project noted this in one of its cutting videos, called “Sad!

Other than Trump’s jealousy of DeSantis, there’s little to no daylight between the maestro and the apprentice. Floridians would be getting a committed Trumper if they re-elect DeSantis in 2022, although that would certainly give some Floridians joy.

Weirdly, DeSantis may face a primary challenge on the right from Roger Stone, the convicted and then Trump-pardoned political trickster and activist who told Dave Elias of NBC2 in Fort Myers that he might run in order to conduct an audit of the 2020 election in Florida. He could be a surrogate for Trump himself in the 2022 Florida race.

But the final arbiter of the 2022 election may not be human at all: COVID is still active and deadly even though the numbers are declining, thanks to widespread vaccinations. DeSantis is on record and running as an anti-mandate, anti-precaution candidate.

If, however, DeSantis and the anti-vaxxers block vaccination mandates for schoolchildren and there is an outbreak that kills large numbers of them, Florida parents might—just might—put the blame at the feet of DeSantis and anti-vaxx Republicans. It is a horrible outcome but one being invited by the anti-vaxxers’ gamble.

Finding a strategy

Still, expecting victory based on an opponent’s stumbles is not a strategy.

The problem for Democrats in Florida and nationally is that they are a political party competing with a cult.

A cult, when it’s strong, has some decided advantages: it has a single leader, its followers obey unthinkingly, and it has a clear, simple message based on a few unmistakable tenets.

This is the state of the Republican Party today. Even with Trump somewhat sidelined, the Republican Party is still a cult of personality, worshipping Trump and his clear, simple message of, in his words, “hatred, prejudice and rage.”

Nowhere is this truer than in Florida, where the man resides and the governor is his closest acolyte.

In comparison to this Democrats, as is more characteristic of a political party, are diverse, contentious and sometimes chaotic. While they entertain a wide spectrum of ideas there’s no one personality imposing intellectual uniformity. Sometimes that can be a disadvantage at the voting booth.

Actually, the Democratic Party does have some clear tenets: inclusion for all, concern for humanity, determination to forge a better future and commitment to democracy. But while the Democratic Party stays within the law and argues policies, Trumpist Republicans pursue power at all costs. There is no hypocrisy too great, no mental gymnastic too convoluted, no legal barrier too high to impede this raw pursuit of power. And if elections don’t go their way they’re willing to overturn them through violence and then condone it, as the January 6th insurrection demonstrated.

Trumpist Republicans also have the advantage in that theirs is an emotional movement, riding on hatred, prejudice and rage but also fear and outrage, much of it generated by pandemic restrictions but finding expression against their long-time targets of Biden, Democrats and governing institutions like school boards.

This is neither new nor surprising. After every disaster there is a search for human scapegoats, sometimes very strange ones. For example, after the Johnstown Flood of 1889, survivors scapegoated Hungarian immigrants; after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 city residents’ wrath fell on a tiny Japanese community; after the great 1927 Mississippi flood there was a horrendous wave of lynchings and murders of Black people in the affected southern states. It is as though people, having suffered at the hands of nature, must find human victims.

We are now coming through the disaster of the pandemic, which, though receding, is still with us. After four years of Donald Trump’s routinely lying, scapegoating and deflecting blame as a standard operating procedure, his cult is now primed to channel all its pandemic frustrations against Biden and the government working so hard to defeat the disease. The resulting program is clear: hatred of Biden and opposition to all restrictions, rules or Democratic ideas.

As of right now, the political landscape is decidedly headed in the Republican direction, boosted by the victory in Virginia and the close call in New Jersey.

For Democrats who stay within the bounds of law and the Constitution the solution will always be the same: more and better organizing, more energetic campaigning, greater voter registration, sharper messaging, more programs and policies that benefit people and an appeal to reason and good sense.

There is also this to remember: a victory is sweet but a defeat sharpens the mind and energizes the effort.

As Thomas Paine put it in the darkest days of the American Revolution after a string of Continental defeats: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Liberty lives in light

(c) 2021 by David Silverberg

Florida legislature opens redistricting process to all

The Republigator, a Florida salute to Elkanah Tisdale and his original Gerrymander cartoon, showing Florida after the 2010 redistricting. (Illustration by the author © 2021.)

Sept. 27, 2021 by David Silverberg

Do you think you can draw better political maps than the state legislators in Tallahassee?

Now you can get your chance.

A new website, Florida Redistricting, launched Monday, Sept. 20, gives anyone who cares to use it the opportunity to recommend re-jiggering the state’s political boundaries based on 2020 Census data.

It’s a remarkable experiment in citizen participation and a striking change from past redistricting done in dark, smoke-filled rooms out of public sight.

Of course, while citizens can make plenty of suggestions it will be the legislature that finally decides how the maps will be drawn.

Still, for a state that has increasingly pulled the curtain on its vaunted principles of sunshine in government, it is an exceptional departure from the past. It brings a bit of light to a process that is unglamorous but essential—and determines the partisan balance of power for the decade to come.

The process

Redistricting actually consists of two processes: redistricting (redrawing district lines) and reapportionment (redistributing congressional seats among the states).  

Next year Florida gets one new seat in Congress based on its increase in population since 2010. That new district is expected to be in the high-growth area of Orlando or somewhere along the I-4 corridor.

The original cartoon that gave rise to the term “gerrymander.

Traditionally, redistricting is colloquially known as the process whereby politicians choose their voters, so voters will likely choose them at election time. It has been manipulated since the beginning of the American republic—and even before, in colonial times. In 1812 it gave rise to the term “gerrymander” after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry so manipulated the state’s district maps to his political advantage that what emerged was a salamander-like creature immortalized in a newspaper cartoon.

Republicans have been past masters of drawing lines to favor their party. This was highlighted in January 2020, after the death of Republican redistricting consultant Thomas Hofeller. His daughter Stephanie made public the contents of four external hard drives and 18 thumb drives from her father’s office, revealing his detailed gerrymandering work. While he was based in North Carolina, he had clients all over the country and participated in Florida’s redistricting.

In 2010 two constitutional amendments, 5 and 6, were on the ballot in Florida. Amendment 5 covered legislative districts, amendment 6 covered congressional districts and both were known as the Fair Districts Amendments.

Both amendments required that: “districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”

In the 2010 election both amendments passed with 63 percent of the vote, despite vehement opposition from the state’s Republican lawmakers. (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) joined a lawsuit to block their implementation, which failed.)

Despite the amendments, Florida’s 2010 maps were drawn by consultants and political operatives who maneuvered behind the scenes to push Republican dominance. The lines were so elaborately gerrymandered when the maps were revealed that fair districts supporters sued to overturn them.

A “group of Republican political consultants did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” ruled Judge Terry Lewis of the 2nd Judicial Circuit in 2014. “They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting” and “went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan,” and “managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.”

It took five years of litigation to finally end the disputes, during which two elections took place.

Carving up Southwest Florida

Southwest Florida’s congressional districts—17, 19 and 25—were clearly the products of these labors, diluting any potential Democratic blocs of voters to favor Republican hegemony. (For more, see the 2019 articles: “Gerrymandering comes home to Southwest Florida” and “A tale of two swamps: Why Southwest Florida can’t keep its congressmen.”)

This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Estero), who heads the state Senate’s reapportionment committee, is promising that the process will be open, fair and transparent and meet both the spirit and letter of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendments.

“We are taking steps to safeguard against the kind of shadow process that occurred in the last cycle,” Rodrigues said during the first meeting of his committee on Monday, Sept. 20. “We will protect our process against the ‘astroturfing’ that occurred in the past, where partisan political operatives from both parties wrote scripts and recruited speakers to advocate for certain plans or district configurations to create a false impression of a widespread grassroots movement.”

He added: “Fortunately, we now have the insight into both the judiciary’s expanded scope of review, and how courts have interpreted and applied the constitutional standards related to redistricting. I intend for this committee to conduct the process in a manner that is consistent with case law that developed during the last decade that is beyond reproach and free from any hint of unconstitutional intent.”

How they break down

According to the 2020 Census, Florida gained 2,736,877 people over the last ten years and now has a population of 21,538,187.

In Southwest Florida, Lee County gained 142,068 residents, reaching a population of 760,822. Collier County gained 54,232 people to reach a total population of 375,752. Charlotte County gained 26,869 people to reach a total of 186,847.

The redistricting effort will try to bring the new districts into line with ideal population levels while meeting Fair Districting criteria. Since all of Southwest Florida gained population above the ideal, most—but not all—its districts are considered “overpopulated.”

Congressional districts

Southwest Florida’s congressional districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

Ideally, each Florida congressional district should have 769,221 people in it, a gain of 72,876 from last time.

According to the data from FloridaRedistricting.gov, in Southwest Florida the current congressional districts break down as follows:

  • District 17: With a total population of 779,955 people, it has 10,734 or .014 percent people more than the ideal number.
  • District 19: With a total population of 835,012 people, it has 65,791 or .086 percent more people than the ideal number.
  • District 25: With a total population of 771,434 people, it has 2,213 or .003 percent more people than the ideal number.

To find your congressional district, click here.

Southwest Florida Senate districts

Southwest Florida’s state Senate districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

Senate districts should ideally have a population of 538,455 people.

The two main Senate districts covering Southwest Florida are 27 and 28.

  • District 27 has 579,819 people, 41,364 or .077 percent more than the ideal.
  • District 28 has 563,557 people, 25,102 or .047 percent more than the ideal.

To find your Florida Senate district, click here.

Southwest Florida House districts

Southwest Florida state House districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

State House districts should have 179,485 people.

  • District 76: With 180,111 people, it has 626 or .003 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 77: With 197,485 people, it has 17,997 or .1 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 78: With 193,526 people, it has 14,041 or .078 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 79: With 189,703 people, it has 10,218 or .057 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 80: With 188,858 people, it has 9.373 or .052 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 105: With 176,959 people it has 2,526 or .014 percent fewer people than the ideal.
  • District 106: With 164,757 people it has 14,728 or.082 percent fewer people than the ideal.

To find your Florida House district, click here.

Can it really happen?

In its effort to be inclusive, the Florida legislature is giving residents the opportunity to draw their own maps and recommend changes.

It’s a chance people should seize by going to the website.

To submit maps and recommendations a user has to create an account on the website. The site has a quick-start guide to walk users through the process.

Once in, users can fiddle with the maps to their heart’s content and send recommendations to the legislature.

It’s a remarkable innovation in participatory democracy. Time, however, is of the essence. The legislative redistricting session convenes on Jan. 11 of next year and it must complete its work by the time it adjourns on March 11. Without a doubt, it will be a contentious session.

After that, there will presumably be newly-drawn districts. By June 11, candidates will qualify to run for office. Then the party primaries will take place on Aug. 23 and the general election on Nov. 8.

Can this experiment in popular participation actually result in fairly drawn, politically neutral boundaries?

Obviously, it remains to be seen. In 2010 the Fair Districting Amendments passed overwhelmingly but the maps that came out were gerrymandered anyway. Florida always seems to have a way of ignoring or circumventing its most popular constitutional amendments.

Coming out of the gate, though, Rodrigues’ intentions seem good if his words are taken at face value.

If this experiment works Florida could become a national model of fair districting. This time, if citizens are alert, engaged and determined, maybe—just maybe—Florida for once might abide by its own constitution and put to rest the gerrymander, or, in this case, the Republigator.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg